The other day, the President’s men and women broadcast a documentary ostensibly aimed at publicly humanizing Muhammadu Buhari, a former military General still seen and perceived as stiff as they come, even when he has virtually turned 360 degrees a civilian democrat.
In attempts to present their principal as genial, the aides portrayed Buhari as a split-personality: The stern, no nonsense former Military Governor, Military Head of State, and now President of the Federal Republic and Commander-in-Chief; and the other a jovial, sociable, likable, jolly good fellow.
Many Nigerians complained about the timing of the documentary, aired in the midst of a crunching fuel scarcity at Christmastide – occurrences many thought were over since the hike in fuel price from N86.5 to N145 in early 2016 that, mercifully, ensured availability of petrol for the year-end celebrations.
Of course, whether the film was aired in good moments, many would still query and criticize it for varying reasons, not the least the dislike (hatred) they harbour for Buhari and anything to do with his All Progressives Congress-led administration.
The fuel hassles were foreshadowed by an economic recession that berthed in the first quarter of 2016, only to abate technically, according to the government, in the third quarter of 2017. Still, prices of goods and services are at the rooftop, without any indications when they would come down, courtesy of the machinations of cartels in the oil industry.
Nonetheless, the cabinet aides failed to realize that no other person can humanize Buhari but, or than himself. Nigerians have seen snippets of the president in bouts of guffaw in photographs, especially the ones published to debunk rumours of his being vegetative or dead during his ill-health in London in 2017.
But they haven’t seen Buhari, in flesh and blood, in that form or shape, not at any occasions, such as political rallies that are jamborees. The mental picture they have, and seldom see of him is a man that gives smirky smiles and a reluctant wave of the hand(s). Not for him the buzz of the Nigerian social life that makes people to loosen up.
Yet, it’s what the Buhari people wanted to disprove with the documentary: that the president is good-humoured, as most Nigerians. According to Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, a time was, particularly during the build-up to the 2015 general elections, when they, together with Buhari, would roll on the carpet with laughter in Buhari’s home in Kaduna – owing to the moonlight tales told by the president.
However, one striking feature of the aides’ narratives is that Buhari only let his guards down in the circles of his family members, friends and associates, including cabinet members. When he’s outside of these groups, he maintains his mien. But must we all be his acquaintances before we can experience the avuncular disposition he displays in private?
When the people were voting in 2015, they never distinguished between a public and private Buhari; they cast their ballots for an individual that would give them the dividend of democracy: Feed them when they are hungry; give them water when thirsty; shelter them from the elements; protect them from marauders; and provide them with the necessities for modern living: travelable roads, constant power, available and affordable energy, potable water, and good and qualitative education and healthcare.
No doubt, President Buhari has exhibited humaneness, such as in the home-grown feeding programme for thousands of school children; stipends paid to vulnerable elderly people; and the various bailout funds the Federal Government has given the states to offset backlog of salaries and pensions to workers and retirees. He has repeatedly expressed empathy for these people.
But how many times has the president made a detour to greet, and exchange pleasantries with members of the audience in an auditorium? How often, if any, has he been on the streets of his immediate constituency of Abuja, to ask after the wellbeing of, and share a joke or two with the common man he professes to represent?
How would the people appreciate his difficulties in governance, such as tackling the current fuel shortages in the country, if they don’t know him through personal contacts, or talk to and exchange ideas with him via the telephone, radio and television? The people don’t need third parties to tell them about his geniality. They want that familiarity first hand.
So, it’s time for President Buhari to relax a bit. For instance, there’s nothing more humanizing than he digressing from the introductory protocols, to intimately greet an audience at a ceremony, say at the International Conference Centre in Abuja.
On mounting the podium, he could start by: “Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. How’s your day? How was your night? Did you sleep well in this very hot weather? Was there electricity supply to power your fans or air conditioners? Oh yes, how did you make it to this place: in your private vehicles or by public transport? How did you get the fuel, and for how much (if by private vehicle)? How much did you pay as fare (if by public transport)?” Imagine how the audience would respond to these anecdotal queries to warm and lively up the gathering for the session!
And when he’s about to leave the venue, let the president veer off the security-detailed path, go down to the floor and shake hands with as many of the attendees as possible, and wave enthusiastically to the rest he’s unable to reach. This is how Buhari can accessibly humanize himself before “ordinary” Nigerians.
•Ehichioya lives in Lagos.